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EPA official who compared enforcement to crucifixion resigns

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A senior Environmental Protection Agency official resigned Sunday in an effort to end the furor over his remarks two years ago that the EPA should make examples of polluters the way Romans crucified people to quash rebellions.

But it appeared unlikely that the departure of Alfredo Juan “Al” Armendariz — who had served as EPA administrator for Region VI, encompassing Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico and Oklahoma — would quell Republican attacks targeting the EPA during an election year. GOP lawmakers have seized upon his comments, made during a May 2010 speech in Dish, Tex., and captured on video, as an example of what they say are administration efforts to curtail U.S. energy development.

Sen. James M. Inhofe (Okla.), the top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said he and his colleagues would continue to investigate any efforts by the EPA to limit the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” in which companies extract oil and gas trapped in shale rock.

“After his revelation that EPA’s ‘general philosophy’ is to ‘crucify’ oil and gas companies, it was only right for Administrator Armendariz to resign today — but his resignation in no way solves the problem of President Obama and his EPA’s crucifixion philosophy,” Inhofe said in a statement.

A spokeswoman for Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), Lucy Nashed, echoed Inhofe’s criticism.

“While Al Armendariz’s resignation means there will be one less activist at the EPA, his philosophy unfortunately permeates through the entire agency,” Nashed wrote in an e-mail. “We urge the administration to replace him with someone who will work to protect our natural resources in a way that bolsters the economy, rather than vilifying our nation’s energy producers and imposing job-killing, high cost mandates that are passed on to consumers.”

EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson and White House officials last week distanced themselves from Armendariz’s remarks, which came during a 90-minute speech to residents of Dish. Dish is a tiny town north of Dallas where concerns over the environmental effects of fracking have dominated public debate; the EPA has been scrutinizing whether the process of injecting water, sand and chemicals underground at high pressure to let the gas escape may contaminate nearby drinking water supplies.

Armendariz is shown in the video answering a question about enforcement of environmental laws. Noting that the analogy was “crude” and “maybe inappropriate,” he said: “It was kind of like how the Romans used to conquer little villages in the Mediterranean. They’d go into a little Turkish town somewhere, they’d find the first five guys they saw, and they would crucify them. And then you know that town was really easy to manage for the next few years.”

He then said the same approach could prod companies to obey environmental laws: “You make examples out of people who are not complying with the law.” An audience member posted the speech on YouTube.

Inhofe’s staff found the video and posted a portion on the senator’s Web site.

Armendariz apologized for his remarks Wednesday, calling them “inaccurate and offensive.” He called Jackson on Sunday morning to tell her he intended to step down, according to an administration official who asked not to be identified and cited the sensitivity of a personnel matter. In a letter written later that day, Armendariz wrote, “I have come to the conclusion that my continued service will distract you and the agency from its important work.”

Jackson, who plans to visit Region VI headquarters in Dallas as soon as Tuesday, sent an internal memo to agency employees Monday saying she had accepted Armendariz’s resignation and she respects “the fact that he came to this difficult decision because he did not want to distract from our agency’s critical work.”

On Friday, Jackson called Armendariz’s remarks “inflammatory but also wrong,”and said she would continue to review the case, but declined to say whether he faced disciplinary action, even as congressional Republicans demanded his firing.

A former professor at Southern Methodist University with a doctorate in environmental engineering, Armendariz had been an environmental activist before becoming regional administrator in November 2009. He had served as an expert witness for environmental groups in a lawsuit against Las Brisas Energy Center, a company seeking to build a new power plant in Corpus Christi, Tex., but recused himself after joining the EPA.

Environmental Integrity Project associate director Ilan Levin, whose group brought Armendariz on as an expert witness in the case, said he was surprised by the controversy.

“I’ve never really thought of him as an environmental advocate,” he said of Armendariz, describing him as “methodical and deliberate, not fiery.”

Levin, whose group has been barred from meeting privately with Armendariz for two years because it once retained him as an expert witness, said he did not view the regional office as aggressive in its prosecution of polluters.

“Region VI has a long history of being weak on enforcement,” Levin said in a phone interview, adding that it has often deferred to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality on questions of air pollution. “That hasn’t changed under Armendariz. Despite his best intentions, EPA hasn’t done much to improve the Texas air program.”

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